Last week was the anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that ended school segregation.
But while most people are familiar with the story of the Kansas students the case is named for, most people are unaware that the Supreme Court case was actually a combination of five separate cases from around the country. And only one of those cases was sparked by students.
This is their story.
Standing Up, Walking Out
On the morning of April 23, 1951, more than 400 African-American students poured out of Moton High School in Farmville, VA.
Carrying signs that declared “Down with tar-paper shacks” and “We want a new school or none at all,” the students streamed down the street to the county courthouse. They wanted officials to know they wouldn’t be returning to school until there was change.
The student strike lasted for several weeks, but the students’ actions sparked a movement that led to the desegregation of schools across the country.
And it was all sparked by a 16-year-old girl.
Separate and Unequal
Moton High School was built for fewer than 200 students but had more than 400 attendees. Unlike the school for whites, Moton had no gymnasium, no science labs, no cafeteria, and no sports field.
To keep up with the growing student population, the school built rickety plywood sheds and covered them with tar paper. There was no indoor plumbing. Heating came from wood stoves. Students frequently had to wear winter coats to class to keep warm.
By 1951, students were fed up with the horrid conditions of their school, and were ready to take a stand for equality.
Barbara Rose Johns was a student at Moton High and the niece of a civil rights activist. She daydreamed about a storm blowing down the dilapidated school and a wealthy man building black students a new one.
After missing the school bus and watching the whites-only bus pass her without stopping, Johns decided it was time to do something. So far, the adults hadn’t been able to make an impact. Now it was up to the students.
Johns and a handful of classmates met to discuss what they could do about their school. Together, they formulated a plan, and on April 23, they put it into action.
That morning, the principal received reports about students causing trouble downtown. After he left the school, teachers received notices instructing them to bring their students to an assembly.
As the 400 students packed into the tiny auditorium, Johns rose to speak. She laid out the awful conditions with which Moton High students were all too familiar and called on the students to take action.
They did. The students announced a strike and told officials they refused to go back until a new school was built.
Taking It to the Courts
The student strike lasted several weeks. In the meantime, students called the NAACP and asked for support. NAACP organizers had already been gearing up to fight not just the awful conditions of segregated schools, but the very concept of “separate but equal” facilities.
This was their chance.
At a meeting held at a black church in May, Moton High’s principal urged a moderate approach, telling the attendees to accept segregation as long as the inequalities were addressed.
Johns and the other students would have none of it. Johns reminded the crowd of the conditions black students were facing and called on the black community to support the students’ fight for desegregation.
As the students’ lawsuit made its way to the Supreme Court, it became bundled with several other school segregation cases and was titled based on the most well-known case: Brown v. Board of Education.
The results shook the nation. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation of students was unconstitutional.
Not Over Yet
Unfortunately for the Moton High students, the fight wasn’t over. Pro-segregation politicians, furious at the court’s decision, simply closed all public schools in the county.
They remained closed for five years. While white students attended a private school, black students were left with no options until the Supreme Court ordered the county to reopen the public schools to all students.
Students Changing the World
The story of the Moton High students is the perfect example of how a small group of activists can make a difference if they’re committed and courageous.
The students faced harassment, and Johns had to leave the county to live with relatives after the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on her family’s lawn. But they refused to give in. Because of their courage, students around the country were finally able to get equal access to an education.